Wednesday, April 09, 2003

Transportation Transformation

Ever taken the train from Atlanta to Birmingham? It's a pokey affair. The train, part of Amtrak's New York to New Orleans run, makes the Atlanta-Birmingham trip in a leisurely three hours. Driving the 150 miles between the two cities takes half an hour less.

In the U.S., such a situation is typical when it comes to traveling by rail. But the era of the slow train could be nearing its end. Spurred on by frustrated business leaders, state governments around the country are developing big-ticket plans for high-speed rail, and Congress looks likely to play ball.

Take the Southeast, for example. The chambers of commerce from no less than 14 Southern cities have banded together in a coalition known as the Southeastern Economic Alliance (SEA). The group, whose leaders include top executives from the likes of Bowater and Bank of America, has proposed a plan to upgrade freight lines and build new tracks to form a network of reasonably fast passenger trains (ones that would travel at 85 mph). With the improvements, that ride from Atlanta to Birmingham would shrink from three hours to under two.

Why such interest in rail? For one, Southerners drive more miles than anyone else in the U.S., and traffic congestion in Southeastern cities is expected to increase 400% from now until 2020. Air travel, too, has its share of problems. Last year, a quarter of all flights in the Southeast were delayed.

"Our population growth continues to be very strong," says Charles T. Hill, a co-chair of the SEA and a Richmond, Va.-based executive vice president of Atlanta's SunTrust Bank. "We'll end up with a bottleneck if we're not careful."

In its literature, SEA underscores a new "business approach" to developing rail travel. For example, the alliance advocates getting rid of the long-haul rides that Amtrak now loses so much money on. Instead, the SEA plan would connect cities within 300 miles of each other, an idea that squares with expert thinking on the subject.

"Rail can play a role as a short- and medium-distance carrier," says Hank Dittmar, co-director of Reconnecting America, a transportation policy think tank.

Full story at Forbes.com